The object we are looking at this week from our special display at the Fitzwilliam Museum is a fragment of an Egyptian coffin from the early Middle Kingdom (c. 2055 — c. 1985 BCE), possibly from Asyut. The coffin fragment is painted with yellow earth on the outside, but inscribed with hieroglyphs on the inside.
The early Middle Kingdom brought a return to stability for Egypt after a period of chaos following the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Nevertheless this was a period in which authority in Egypt was relatively decentralized, with local officials and important personages buried in their own rock-cut tombs which had their own painted decoration. Previously, in the Old Kingdom, such tombs had been the preserve of royalty. With the demise of royal authority, however, these practices had disseminated down the social scale.
It was typical of this period to inscribe the inside of the deceased’s coffin with so-called ‘Coffin Texts’. These texts are the equivalent of the ‘Pyramid Texts’ which are inscribed on the walls of the Old Kingdom pyramids for the kings that contained them. You can see a complete contemporary example here:
Map of the netherworld from the coffin of Gua, from Deir el-Bersha, Egypt. 12th Dynasty, 1985-1795 BCΕ. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coffin_of_Gua.jpg.
You might be wondering why the texts are written on the *inside* of the coffin, and not on the outside, as we might expect. Texts of this kind, consisting of liturgies used during the burial service, were intended to be read by the deceased when she rose from the dead and went to the afterlife. This may surprise many people today, since in our society we are not used to thinking in terms of sentient beings existing beyond the limits of this life. However, in the ancient world, and in many parts of the world today, this is in fact a perfectly natural way to think, and it therefore makes sense to write texts not only for the living, but also for the dead, as well, for that matter, as the divine.
Outside of a contemporary Middle Kingdom (12th dynasty) coffin, belonging to a certain Ameny. Image from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/557549.
In a previous post we have examined how the hieroglyphic writing system functioned at the level of characters and words. This text gives us a chance to look at how hieroglyphs can be used to make sentences. The current text is obviously fragmentary, and therefore cannot be read in its entirety, but it is sufficient to see how several aspects of the writing system functioned.
Firstly, we can see that the characters are painted on, rather than incised. Accordingly, the form of the characters used is rather more cursive than those which you might have in your mind from monumental inscriptions. Cursive hieroglyphs were the preferred form for rendering various kinds of funerary texts, including Coffin Texts.
Stela from First Intermediate Period, with incised (i.e. non-cursive) hieroglyphs. From the Fitzwilliam’s collection, image from here.
The hieroglyphs in our text are written in both red and blue, in columns, which are separated from one another by vertical black lines. This is the way that hieroglyphs were written historically. However, not long after this, texts would start to be written in horizontal lines, a habit that we continue in our own writing system.
Although the text is written in vertical lines, within each column the ordering is right to left. How can this be, when each line is only one character long? Well, we can tell the intended direction of reading because Egyptian hieroglyphs have the possibility of being written facing one way or another. Consider the following column:
You can see that each of the characters with left-right asymmetry are facing to the right. This is perhaps clearer in the following transcription:
However, it would have been perfectly valid to write the same sequence of characters with each character facing the other way:
Both sequences mean the same thing, but hieroglyphics were versatile and could be written both right-to-left and left-to-right. As it happens, right-to-left was the default order, and the only ordering used for the related fully cursive script known as ‘hieratic’. This is, furthermore, the order that was inherited by the West Semitic abjad scripts (discussed by Philip in another recent post). However, this is a good reminder that the ordering of letters and direction of writing was not so fixed in the ancient world as we might consider it today. My colleague Pippa, and director of the project, has written about so-called boustrophedon writing in Greek here too.
If you would like to read more about Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, you can try these sources:
Davies, W. V. 1987. Egyptian Hieroglyphs. London: British Museum Publications for the Trustees of the British Museum.
Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2013. ‘Middle Kingdom’ in Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craig B. Champion, Andrew Erskine and Sabine R. Huebner (eds.) The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Blackwell. pp. 4490-4494.
In addition, you can also explore the British Museum’s tomb-chapel of Nebamun in 3D here.
~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)